18 October 2016
“The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.” George Orwell
“Britain is the grit in the oyster of Europe.” John Major
The effect of the decision to leave the EU in the June 2016 Referendum clearly has massive implications not only for the fortunes of UK’s economy, but also for perceptions of the United Kingdom’s soft power and of our brands overseas.
The aftermath of Brexit has had brand pundits scrambling for their notebooks and blogging platforms to opine on the ramifications. Most pieces I’ve read seem to veer between mindless optimism and gloomy pessimism. Some believe that Brand Britain is too robust to be much affected by the ripple effects of Brexit. For example in Raconteur, David Haigh Head of Brand Finance writes: “I don’t think there is likely to be much of a change towards, for example, companies supplying their products with a royal warrant. Asprey and Fortnum and Masons may not be significantly affected by this.”
There have been calls from those who see only negative repercussions to ‘de-toxify’ Brand Britain pondering whether we need to re-brand Britain entirely. So, for example a piece in The Drum opines that Brexit may require a wholesale rehaul.
I believe that both views miss the inherent complexity of the issues facing British brands both failing to capture the nuance and idiosyncracy of the UK as country Brand Britain and variety of British brands and the role that Britishness plays in their equity. It is a brand that still carries residual Soft Power and goodwill, but is also one of the most inchoate, tangled brand identities out there. I’ve been thinking about Britishness for a while, both professionally and personally – at least since the 2012 London Olympics. This piece was foreshadowed by a rich discussion on the LinkedIn Semiotic Thinking Group back in 2012 where semiotician Malcolm Evans posted a question “What is the meaning of Britishness?”, that eventually ran to 80 responses.
I mean, we all know that commercial semioticians tend to be a garrulous lot, but the thread length I believe was also reflective of the fascinatingly torn, elusive, inchoate, inscrutable nature of Britishness.
Brexit presents a particular conundrum and adds a twist of uncertainty to this tangle. I would like to make the case that far from being a unique rupture or shock contamination of the British brand, a Black Swan as some have implied, the Brexit polarization and its brand building consequences can be more meaningfully seen as a manifestation and accentuation of dualisms and dialectics already lying latent immanent within Brand Britain. The Referendum has merely been the catalyst. For those of us paying attention to culture through the play of signs and meanings, it has not been such a huge surprise.
- British Cultural Identity
Of course, I am far from the first person to have broached this issue.
There are some fine written accounts of Britishness or Englishness from the historical or anthropological perspective e.g. by Jeremy Paxman in his book and Kate Fox in Watching The English (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005). (I apologise in advance to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish readers for conflating the terms British and English – bloody Sassanachs! – Brexit was of course hatched in England but has implications for all Home Nations of the United Kingdom)
These commentators have pulled out some common traits. Jeremy Paxman wrote in his book The English: A Portrait of a People (GoodReads, 1998)
“The more you look into English history, the more you are forced to the conclusion that alongside the civility and the deeply held convictions about individual rights, the English have a natural taste for disorder”.
This sentiment is echoed in a book entitled Rude Britannia: British Comic Art (Tate Publishing, 2010)
“Brits are known for doing things differently and eccentrically: driving on the wrong side of the road, electric plugs that only work on their own lsland. Some would call it a pioneering mentality, others pigheadedness”
In summary, the British do their things their own way. Chris Rojek’s book “Brit Myth: Who do the British think they are?” (FOCI: 2007) is a sophisticated account of British identity in flux, at the time dealing with devolution multiculturalism. At one point he points out that Britishness, inheres in unspoken rules and subtle coding “the rules of symbolic inclusion and exclusion are notoriously obscure… Public life in the nation seems to be conducted in accordance with an indecipherable code that even the British themselves cannot explain.”
This is no less true today.
Britishness cannot be summed up in grand statements such as the American love of freedom or the French Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Such pronouncements seem insincerely American or chauvinistically French, but are also too earnest and abstract for skeptical, pragmatic, Brits. This ties in with the popularity of shows such as BBC’s Little Britain and Channel 4’s Very British Problems that reduce Britishness down to a collection of subtle idiosyncrasies or behavioural quirks. So, to my mind, Rojek nails the slipperiness of British identity but also the fact that Britishness has a myth of common genealogy at its heart – based on ethnic purity. To this he adds a nostalgia for Britishness Imperial greatness and clinging to Britain’s loss of geopolitical status post Suez crisis. A latent mistrust and antipathy towards Europe, harking back to the World War 2 is part of this too.
My main take out from Rojek’s book is the difficulty of distilling down the essence of Britishness. In the back cover caption he writes: “Is Britain really perceived abroad as predominantly a nation of scruffy, drunken, snaggle-toothed xenophobes? Or do foreigners imagine the British mostly live in stately homes, leading supercilious, emotionally repressed lives?” In this I think he was remarkably prescient in highlighting class stratification, still a social taboo in the UK and the pact that led to Brexit. To cut to the chase, #Brexit has been a touchstone for extreme class elements. It is both the symptom of and catalyst for the manifestation of both a superiority from above and a pent up xenophobia from below and this also contains relevance for British brands.
Semiotics helps uncover the ways in which brands borrow values and ideas from culture and are ultimately parasitic upon them for their meanings. These values are also inherent, inflected across a spectrum amongst British brands from Burberry to Bombardier, and from Virgin Atlantic to Vivienne Westwood. What would John Lewis be without British understatement? Or the Economist or The Sun be without their trademark (very different) versions of British humour?
- The Paradoxical Cultural Codes of Britishness
In a piece of semiotic research conducted on behalf on Iris Worldwide in 2014 I build foundational thinking on meanings of Britishness abroadfor BMW Mini. This was subsequently presented at AdWeek 2014 and rolled out for UKTI in the UK and Japan. The research examined the cultural codes of Britishness in 3 regions in order to spark a fresh Mini brand campaign.
Semiotics was chosen as the approach best able to get under the skin of culture. The methodology involved working with semiotics partners embedded in the 3 most important regions, including Josh Glenn from Semiovox in the US, Max Leefe from Cultural Cartography in Germany and LabBrand in China and to then extrapolate a set of cultural codes of Britishness in cultural production, TV, ads, magazines and online.
What became clear very early on was that all analysts found a pronounced dualism within codes of Britishness. It is an amorphous and tangled identity – not just confined to the semantic confusion over what to call us. In every region there were cultural codes that seemed oppositional. In China, a punk sensibility jostled with chivalry and gentlemanliness. In Germany, the eccentric experimentalism coexisted alongside hooliganism. In the US cruel competences was in fellowship with ironic aestheticism. And in all regions a sense of danger, unpredictability and ingenuity lurks unseen. Like Japan has traditionally been for the West, for foreigners it is rather distant, enigmatic and inscrutable. This accords with my experience too. Britons are described as traditional but transgressive, formal but funny, politeness but profane, both obsessed with health and safety and simultaneously with a love of boisterous behaviour. As Kate Fox writes in her book: “this is why the English, so widely admire for their courtesy, reserve and restraint, should also be renowned for their oafishness, crudeness and violence.”
Summarising the findings, I argued that Britishness can best be understood as a series of paradoxes and tensions.
The final presentation distilled the results down into 4 Quadrants. These Quadrants were developed by taking into account class based binary oppositions (something deeply rooted in British society with profound effects but which remains an unmentionable taboo in the UK). Novelist Jilly Cooper would class them as Middle, Upper Class vs Working Class, but let’s just say Elite versus Mass. The other another axis initially features poles of Knowing and Showing as ways to show the different modalities of this class – that since Brexit I have translated into values of Progression and or Transgression, though, depending on one’s political persuasion, Transgression could read Regression.
I place an image of the quadrants below:
It is possible to plot British values across these quadrants.
Now I want to stress this does not seek to demonize classes, or to suggest any class has a monopoly on any of these values, simply that recognizable tendencies do exist.
When British brand values are viewed in this way it is salutary for our view on Brexit. That far from being a ‘Black Swan’ event, it is simply an activation of latent tendencies of transgression and exceptionalism, long nourished within British culture. I describe the individual quadrants below, with examples, in as much detail as I can. I hope I make myself clear – I will do my best!
QUADRANT 1: ELITE PROGRESSIVE
This quadrant is characterised by understatement and the world of the Civil Service, puritanism, pragmatism, and the stiff upper lip of the sedate, buttoned down, compromising Brit. Keep on and Carry on and the Mend and Make Do resistance of 1940s Britain is a key facet in this, a quiet industriousness but it is underpinned also by Victorian values of thrift, probity, tact. The BBC World Service and the British Civil Service is squarely placed within this; Understated Britishness. You could place John Lewis on this side too – straitlaced, democratic and -at least at the level of myth and marketing – as far as possible classless quality. In Germany the cultural codes read are those of Pragmatic Simplicity, in the US a Cosmopolitan View; in China a Cozy Indulgence or a Homeliness.
British brands like The Economist and The Guardian are valued in the US for instance, for their perceived authoritative, objective and cosmopolitan take on world affairs in reporting.
QUADRANT 2: ELITE TRANSGRESSIVE
This quadrant is characterised by a world of British superiority, defiant world of Debrett’s and the English aristocracy. This is the Devil May Care of the Flashman books and the privileged excesses of the Bullingdon Club, the offensiveness of a young Prince Harry turning up to a party dressed as a Nazi. It can be seen in the drunken entitlement and madcappery of TV franchise Absolutely Fabulous.
It quadrant often asserts British exceptionalism. The dismissive attitude to foreigners exhibited by Jeremy Clarkson on BBC’s Top Gear. The outrageous snobbery in the novels of Jilly Cooper. The phlegmatic wit of a Winston Churchill and the unabashed eccentricity of Nancy Mitford or Edith Sitwell. The unabashed exuberant jingoism and flaunting wealth of Ascot, Henley’s Regatta and the Last Night of the Proms. In China this is expressed in Royal Superiority in the US Edgy Class and in Germany a sense of Aristocratic Outdoors life. This is the quadrant the contributes to mystique around the cold aloofness of the nobility and royalty: the Coldstream Guards, and that makes ITV’s Downton Abbey such a success.
QUADRANT 3: MASS PROGRESSIVE
This quadrant is based on the industrial revolution that shattered tradition and created a nation of open minded, freethinking, free born Englishmen – nation of pragmatists, traders, adventurers and reformers. Whigs rather than Tories.
The inventiveness, imagination and ingenuity of the British mind, inventors, explorer and entrepreneur. The originality, of radicals like William Blake, of David Bowie, more recently of the drum and bass movement in the 1990s, and UK grime, with protagonists such as Wiley and Dizzee Rascal.
In Germany this came out in codes such as Urban Grittiness and in China in cultural codes such as Glamorous Modernity. Brand wise it is Dyson, Tim Berners-Lee, Thomas Heatherwick at the Shanghai expo, British architects and artists like Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Antony Gormley. British bioscience and great literary tradition. It is JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and Nick Parks, the Shoreditch Mile and the New Aesthetic. It is Britain’s still strongly competitive creative industry and digital media.
Brands wise it is the terrestrial Channel 4 or Virgin Galaxy: experimental companies with a pioneering ethos.
QUADRANT 4: MASS TRANSGRESSIVE
This quadrant is the legacy of the Shakespearean tavern and Hogarth, the ribald, chaotic world of the brothel, London’s Bedlam, Friday night drunkenness, punk boisterous. This is both the TV show Shameless on Channel 4. This is ITV on a Saturday night – Ant & Dec and Britain’s Got Talent. It is tabloid humour and pub talk. It is Wickes, HP Sauce and B&Q.
The punk ethos was a further channeling of this cheekiness, laddish and working class humour. A extremes it can be cynical, insular, clannish, nihilistic and hooliganism. The Sex Pistols and Kate Moss. This quadrant was represented in the global work in cultural codes by surreal humour, by Pointed Absurdism in the US, Gruesome & Quirky in China and Surreal humour in Germany. Brands wise it is The Sun, HP Sauce, probably by Ben Sherman and Dr. Martens.
As you can see above, I believe that there are some British brands that squarely stake out their brand positioning within a single quadrant. Pimm’s communication in their campaign Pimm’s O’Clock revels in an upper class devil may care and dash the consequences defiance could be placed in Quadrant 2. A brand like the tabloid The Sun with its ‘voice of the working class’ mantle, pungent language and belligerent, battling editorial is to be found squarely in Quadrant 4.
Paradoxical British Brands
What the semiotics study showed, however, with close analysis of British brand communication is that British brands often play with the tensions across their communication and that the class ambiguity often gives them energetic complexity. The Vivienne Westwood fashion brand plays on her legacy as doyenne of punk fashion and vaunts a faux Royalty while simultaneously poking fun at it. Burberry is both aloof and swish and at the same time, and assiduously mixes belligerent mods and the supercilious young toffs in its communication – like how Tommy Hilfiger was said to fetishise both black swagger and white wealth in his 1990s brand advertising). The late Alexander McQueen, the so called “hooligan of British fashion” would fit here with his refined Gothic and uncompromising punk radicalism. Bombardier beer straddle both that Devil may Care aristocracy and the no nonsense aura of the yeoman working classes. Country Life butter advertising has used Johhny Lydon who in the ad fuses punk anarchism with the breezy aloofness of the landed gentry. Churchill Insurance draws on the equity of Winston Churchill, the doughty British stalwart, but does so in a stolid working class Northern accent. Virgin Atlantic too ironizes über American schmaltz with sneering British superiority and at the same time insinuates cocking a snook at the stuffiness British Airways. Their Transatlanticism is arguably parasitic on these paradoxes of Britishness. Even David Beckham can be placed into this model paradox in his Beckham Signature ad playing on both the geezerish wide boy edge and his (well deserved) reputation for chivalry and manners. Once you start looking at British brands with a sensitivity to class inflections, they are ubiquitous.
You can see a more inclusive, less extreme type of paradox at work in the Opening Ceremony of the London Summer 2012 Olympics. Danny Boyle described it as a paean to British tolerance and dissent. By popular consensus, it was as much pub crawl as a pageant. Ramshackle, and boisterous, this was a ceremony that was both unpolished and unapologetically profane. It featured a clowning Rowan Atkinson, disrupting an orchestral piece and the Queen breaking protocol by jumping out of a plane. As well as many transgressive elements, but it was also suffused with a notion of progress, the industrial Revolution, British science and engineering achievements, ending with a eulogy to Tim-Berners Lee and with Dizzee Rascal singing Bonkers. And, of course, the stunning, spectacular opening of the Olympic flame, lovingly designed by designer Thomas Heatherwick.
The Danny Boyle ceremony was traditional but subversive, it broke all the rules as an example of our ornery exceptionalism – pugnacious and anarchic but still magnanimous – transcending the awesome Beijing 2008 ceremony by zigging where the Chinese had zagged. I believe it was very much positioned on Quadrants 3 and 4, mass progress and transgression. In the Twitter comments, there were those unhappy at a tax payer funded event that seemed to celebrate the Labour movement and the NHS, state funded institutions. A Conservative MP caused a national backlash by describing the ceremony on Twitter as “leftie, multicultural crap”. And Brexit is a very different national moment where Quadrant 4 has now come to the fore.
So, in that 2014 the study we established from the foreign gaze, Britishness is a bit of a conundrum – superficial politeness but underlying this a danger; both the repressed danger of the upper class and the in your face boisterousness of the working class hero and the creative maverick. This is also paralleled in studies done by Visit Britain showing that the British are not considered to be warm, but cold, unfriendly. Again, this seed of separation and difference has always been part of Brand Britain. What Brexit has done is to conspicuously accentuate, and bring into sharp relief these latent traits.
- The EU Referendum Campaign, Brexit and the Quadrants
The EU Referendum campaign witnessed a triumph of two quadrants of Britishness. A transient pact between Quadrant 2 carelessness and Quadrant 4 mindlessness: of those minded to register their antipathy to Europe and who could afford not to mind about the result and those angered into smashing the status quo regardless of the consequences. Remain and Stronger In rather represented the Understatement of the Civil Service the EU bureaucrats as well as UK scientists relying on the teamwork and efficiency of EU funding and those who keen to continue to sponsor this experiment in democracy.
Quadrants 1 and 3 on the map of British values. Even the sound phonetics of the word ‘Remain’ with its long open vowels and bilabial ‘m’ is mealy mouthed mummery and compromise. It implicitly represents the Elite consensus on what would represent incremental progress for this country, but was staid and boring. Vote Leave benefited from the brevity and dynamism of the word Leave, with its hard fricative. As covered in this excellent Creative Review piece, Brexit represented hostile, superior Euroscepticism and the alienated ‘fuck you’ of the disappointed, disgruntled and disenfranchised in forgotten regions.
Researcher, specialising in hard to reach audiences, Steven Lacey writing on LinkedIn Pulse about how Vote Leave captured the working class writes: “Working class people are direct, to the point and argumentative. If something needs arguing, they do it now that is accepted and clears the air. The working class also have a functional approach, there is no dwelling or reflecting on things, they either get it and move on, or don’t get it and move on.” Vote Leave had a core message of staunching immigration and populist empowerment that struck a real chord.
Vote Leave was very much within the bottom two quadrants. Remain was very much placed in the top right Quadrant 1; i.e. British reserve as well as arguing to safeguard the status quo. As I argue in my blog piece Facts and Friction, their cause wasn’t helped by accusations of using Government money. What was sorely lacking in the campaign was any sense of the benefits to be had from EU Membership, or what a European outlook and Brit-European identity might look like. They could have done a lot worse than look at what Eurostar have done in their Stories are Waiting ads. Crucially, there needed to be working class or at least non-elite voices showing some sort of affiliation with EU cosmopolitan values and openness to Europe. One would have thought that engaging the creative community with some Quadrant 3 would also have better engaged people. But alas, no.
In the absence of the vanguardism from Quadrant 3 Britishness, the bottom two quadrants carried the day. And they did so by playing to British dissent and defiance versus faceless authority. Assiduous activation of the ribald, subversive nature of Britishness by Vote Leave proved to be intoxicating. But I would argue now that after the hangover of victory, British brands need to understand how to manage the legacy of this rebellion.
Jilly Cooper in Class remarked on the fact that the uppermost and lowermost echelons on society tend to get on better with each other than either of them do with the middle class – this is presumably to do with their mutual directness, humour, self- toughness and shared love of hedonism. The ruthless, rigid bullying of the British public school appears closer to the ethos of some Comprehensives than to independent day school. This goes along with other things bottom and top have in common: social conservatism, Nimbyism, love of monarchy. This accounts for the rise to power of a man like Boris Johnson, an imperious Etonian with some questionable views on race and class and who can quote Horace one moment and buffoon for the populist gallery the next.
- Representation of Brexit Overseas
If we want to see how Brand Britain is being seen around the world, we can do a lot worse than review the cartoons appearing in the European and international press in the aftermath of the Referendum decision being announced. In the aftermath of the EU Referendum, I reached out to my contacts in the semiotics community across Europe to see how Brexit was reported in the press within their countries(* see the bottom of this piece for a full list of those who responded). I asked them the extent to which they see Britain as part of Europe, had this changed, the way it was reported in their country and any images they believed summed up the situation.
Across the analysts there was an ambivalence expressed about the decision. There was some genuine shock that Brexit had actually happened and fear about the consequences, but at the same time a feeling that the EU had had its comeuppance through its complacency and lack of self reform. There was a sneaking admiration for the independence spirit of the UK – against the conformity of the EU project inherent in the result. So Quadrant 3 of the model pioneering is potentially touched upon with the notion of a UK with its principles of, sovereignty, self-determination and cultural autonomy. But it seems that alongside this the bombshell of Brexit ran counter to the sort of perceptions of the UK that is usually associated with Quadrant 1 – wisdom, caution, order. And shock that it was trumped by Quadrant 2, superiority quotient and wanton, rejectionist streak of Quadrant 4.
The most significant thing for me amongst the response however, were the Brexit cartoons in European press.
Irrationality, absurdity, madness and lunacy were the common themes amongst most of the cartoons chosen. A spoof article within a Russian paper claimed to correlate Vote Leave regions with those affected by Mad Cow Disease. Most represent Brexit as a case of British madness blamed on delusional masochism. In many cases the UK is represented by a figure who is presumably meant to be an aristocratic eccentric.
I have pulled out some of the most compelling ones below.
The New Yorker featured the Ministry of Silly Walks as the cover image, inspiring this:
A red-faced John Bull the quintessential representative of Britain abroad – hearty, bellicose, uncompromising – created by John Arbuthnot in 1712 has become associated in Europe with British exceptionalism – here he vandalises our trade links.
A mad British Lion popping out of a European Union box and in doing so tearing itself in two (success, of sorts, but only through an act of sado-masochism and self harm).
A reactionary, top hatted toff, representing the UK engages in a nonsensical and irrational conversation with the EU.
There is also representation of the anti-establishment ‘rebel yell’ and rejectionism of mass British populism represented by Brexit. This one a clear reference to the anarchic wantonness of 1970s London.
The doughty, suspicious and implacable bulldog as sign of working class xenophobia versus the patronising elites.
And the feckless layette; defiant against European dismay, as a representation of post downturn Broken Britain.
The cartoons selected nicely illustrate the disdain and delinquency at work in Brexit, that is felt not only in Europe but in the UK too a swipe of supercilious disregard from those so insulated against the ramifications of leaving the EU that it doesn’t matter to them and a belligerent blow from those sunk in disgruntlement with an institution they’ve learned to associate with feelings of disenfranchisement and worsening economic conditions. The below cartoon seems to be a nice visual encapsulation of this pact between Quadrants 2 and 4.
In the visual language of political commentary on the Continent, the British decision looks very much like madness – perfidious Albion finally overcome by its own narcissism, delusions of grandeur and mistrust of Europe. But from the British side, it is the activation of strains buried very deep in Brand Britain, channeled in a calamitous direction. The class covenant in a time of national crisis reminds me of the obdurate officer class in First World War overseeing the mass slaughter of millions of Tommies whipped up into a patriotic frenzy then duly sacrificed in a futile cause. And all those opposed war vilified as traitors or cowardly conscientious objectors. This cartoon refers to BBC’s Blackadder Goes Forth:
What I am keen to reassure our European colleagues is that we are not totally mad, it’s just that our character defects of insularity, aloofness, superiority have led to Brexit and us being on the brink of leaving the Single Market which looks very much like madness from across the Channel. It is mad, by any accounts, but there is some method in its cultural roots – that of dissenting exceptionalism. A piece of street art I saw in Ladbroke Grove shows a butler deferently, but mischievously, serving a Molotov cocktail to an unknown person: couldn’t this be a visual metaphor for #Brexit?
[this the featured cover image for the piece. Apologies to the artist. I cannot credit you because I don’t know who you are!]
What is interesting to me is the way inter-cultural communication mangles messages across borders and how codes can become distorted in their translation. As semioticians from Umberto Eco to Stuart Hall have shown, our communication codes are neither frictionless nor perfectly transmuted. What within Britain are just cultural values, ingrained traits of exceptionalism, aloofness co-existing with anarchy – from the perspective of overseas it appears to be a British lunacy.
- Brexit and the Potential Impact on British Brands
My thinking of this subject has highlighted a rich vein of skepticism, satire, defiance, dissent, subversion, individualism, eccentricity, extreme libertarianism as very British traits. Those celebrating the Referendum result on 24th June saw it as a victory for grass roots Britain, a triumph of the browbeaten ‘quiet majority’ as against elitist manipulation. Remainers rather see it as a British coup by a demagogue-happy elite with a hidden political agenda. It is worth noting, as semiotician Grant Venner did, that the result itself was a complete contradiction. It was not a clear mandate for Brexit either Soft or Hard versions and has left us with a tangle of contradictory objectives (protecting the UK from immigration, but allowing us access to the Single Market, endeavouring to open up to a world beyond Europe but building walls in Calais, reclaiming national sovereignty, but muzzling the Legislature to trigger Article 50 circumventing Parliament in order to do so).
But as regards British brands I am a bit more optimistic. This is because British Brands have always played with these sorts of contradictions. A semiotics eye reveals that they were always more granular and paradoxical than we gave them credit for in their take on Britishness. This very inscrutability, for a foreign audience that is a key part of their charm. I don’t believe, for instance, UK consumers monolithically purchase HP Sauce just because they’re patriotic. The idea of fractal consumers is very important therefore in this context. Retrenchment in a form of Britishness might represent a form of transgression but they might do so whilst watching a BBC4 doc. Virgin Atlantic has always been a slightly more Transatlantic, snazzier version of BA, but this, in itself is a form of Britishness.
British brands, regardless of who buys them in the UK and the final complexion of our economy and society post-Brexit, need to compete abroad. Their brand narratives will contain strains of British culture and so will be unconsciously associated with the vicissitudes of post-Brexit Britain. But before applying a semiotic framework it is important to filter British product and services into some sub categories since I believe that the brand role and functional and symbolic profile of the brand will determine the degree of impact that Brexit could have.
In teaching my MA module Brands and Meaning at Warwick University, I deploy Peter Doyle’s Value Based Marketing, (Wiley, 2008) hard-headed brand typology. Doyle trisected brands into: 1. Attribute brands, 2. Aspirational Brands, 3. Experience Brands. I find this framework useful in assessing post-Brexit British brands.
I have chosen a selection of British brands to look at here.
Attribute Brands. “An attribute brand possesses an image that conveys confidence in the product’s functional attributes.” (e.g. Volvo positioning itself for safety or Ariel for cleaning quality). They tend to be more functional or business to business brands.
- Rolls Royce
- John Lewis
- Marks and Spencer
- London Stock Exchange
Aspirational brands. “An aspirational brand conveys an image about the types of people who buy the brand. The image says less about the product and more about a desired lifestyle.” (So Louis Vuitton connotes jetsetters, Rolex connotes performance and professionals). They tend to be premium or luxury brands based on status.
- Paul Smith
- Fortnum & Mason
Experience brands. An experience brand conveys an image of shared associations and emotions. It goes beyond aspirations and about a shared philosophy between the brand and the individual consumer. (Nike Plus for example or Go Pro cameras). They tend to be more the consumer, lifestyle brands or may be celebrities.
- Virgin Atlantic
- Visit Britain
- Clipper Tea
- Rimmel London
- The Body Shop
- John Oliver
- James Corden
I believe that when we apply the British identity quadrants and how they affect the critical success factors of each type of brand we can start to think through different potential effects.
Attribute Brands: This is where the effect could be most starkly negative. This is because the critical success factor of the attribute brand is predicated on reliable and predictable transfer of value. The transgressive impulse of Brexit has far reaching ramifications. Brexit has opened up a Pandora’s box of imponderables, a cascade of uncertainty from the fluctuating pound to the UK’s trade surplus and the ability to attract inward investment. Many experts are predicting economic instability for years and the shake out may take up to a decade. This plays havoc with the values on which some attribute brands stake out their added value. A shadow side of the UK brand in foreign eyes is a perceived ‘bodginess’ and ‘sloppiness’ for example in our transport system and service culture. Will Brexit potentially worsen this ‘unreliability’ perception?
Recommendations: for these brands it is crucial to ensure a modicum of seriousness is maintained, draw upon Quadrant 1 – fairness, fair play, sobriety, tolerance and rules. A sense of transgression sliding into wantonness in the operation of British services from Quadrant 4 or in British manufacturing will erode the brand as will Quadrant 2’s supercilious complacency particularly if narrow party politics and the bureaucracy of leaving the EU in Brexit stymies easy striking of deals could sabotage the smooth working, trust and efficiency of great British institutions. This could hit export brands, universities and brand that requires an equilibrium in order to thrive. Any hints of lowered quality is where the negative impact of Brexit will tarnishes brand reputation.
Aspirational Brands: Aspirational brands ‘convey an image about the people who buy the brand’. For these brands, it may be (as with the quote from David Haigh) that the effect is less stark. The brand imagery of Mulberry – phantasmagorical arcadia – and Barbour already trade on a sort of aristocratic hauteur – aloofness and coldness are a part of the brand. Indeed separation between an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ group are part and parcel of the whole luxury category. Penhaligon’s for instance is parasitic upon a whole nostalgia for Victorian England as for instance is Bombay Sapphire. This is not likely to be affected, and may even be reinforced by a sense of Britain in splendid isolation from the Continent. A brand like Jaguar plays on the notion of the British villain and the libertine risk taking of the British upper class – in keeping with the vilification of Britain as perfidious Albion against the European consensus in Brexit.
Recommendations:But the hauteur of course depends on the eccentric and the aloofness being based on a certain base of prosperity. If the UK becomes an impoverished wilderness as the result of a savage recession because trade is squeezed and inward investment is withheld and if this is accompanied by social unrest percolating into global media then this might very well eventually erode the status. So a need to ensure that the class division and face of Britain does not become too toxic and alienating – e.g. hints of xenophobia, racism could put off foreign buyers (c.f. Chinese finishing schools!) – the attitude to immigration and visas does not bode well – ensure that the eccentricity and superiority remains attractive and inclusive to overseas buyers – temper Quadrant 2 with Quadrant 3 investment in innovation to ensure quality still play a role or it is a risk that the brand can be seen as complacent and backward looking relying on a Royal Warrant that loses its lustre.
Experience Brands: As for Experience Brands I believe that the effect will probably be more mixed. Virgin Atlantic is probably the quintessential British Experience brand. If we consider Virgin Atlantic I believe it is a mix of Quadrants 2, 3 and 4, with Quadrant 3 dominant. With Virgin and brands of its type the Brexit phenomenon can only enhance a sense of quirkiness and uniqueness which can be endearing. As long as Virgin’s ability to invest in innovation, a new fleet and their service culture remains, Brexit could even be a plus for them. If we consider the appearance of UK celebrities in US showbusiness their winning difference is a blend of a sort patriarchal superiority alongside an extreme and disarming directness. This seems to be like catnip to the Yanks. Think Hugh Laurie on Ellen Generes or Ricky Gervais compere at the Oscars, John Oliver’s role on The Late Week Tonight and James Corden in Car Pool karaoke.
Recommendations: The main risk here is less easy to spot but more pernicious. If the UK were, long term, having decoupled from Europe, and to become more tethered to the US and to embrace its Atlanticist status – from trade deals to political agreements – the common language and dovetailing culture might eventually dilute the uniqueness and rough edges of British culture altogether. This would be particularly if the UK itself were to become more monocultural without an immigrant influx to refresh itself. Without this the excitement and the innovation of creative Britain, are these brands going to be quite as compelling? These brands have the most leeway to play with exploiting the inherent tensions between Quadrants 1 and 3 in their overall operation. Inclusive humour and class cues might need to be reined in to avoid polarisation in the UK and so as to ensure engagement overseas . The main thing here is to ensure the breadth of view that Britain is known as a country of explorers, adventurers and the Brand Britain does not become mired in a parochial Little Englanderism.
- The Blackcurrant Tango Factor
Nothing sums up the naked jingoism in British brand communication more than a cult ad from back in 1997. Ray Gardner, Black Currant tango spot – a cult piece of advertising for us researchers when I was at Flamingo. Tango is a transgressive fizzy drinkbrand, somewhat a darling of the British advertising industry for the classic HHCL work in the 1990s which spawned the classic line “You’ve been Tangoed”. The brand was transgression personified and belongs in Quadrant 4. The 1997 spot that now seems so eerily prescient of the Brexit mentality.
Summary of that slot here: a frustrated executive gets a letter of complaint from a French exchange student called Sebastian that riles him to the point of apoplexy and he rallies of crowd of fervent jingoists to challenge Sebastian to a boxing match on the White Cliffs of Dover where he rails: “Come on Sebastian. Right here, right now. You and me. Come on France. Europe, the World. I’ll take you all on. I’m Ray Gardner. I drink Blackcurrant Tango. Come and get me!!” This spot, even if ironic relied on a dose of grandiose anti-EU sentiment.
My fear is that while this is a hilarious slice of British eccentricity and vainglory, and fine for a fizzy soft drink, it is quite dangerous when percolated into the mindset of those who set policy in HM’s Government and it it was to become the tone of Brand Britain. The arrogance of not planning for the Brexit eventuality (it is said Cameron decided not to brief the Foreign Policy Committee to consider the Brexit scenario), the pugnacious and high handed approach to Brussels, and other countries but not actually having the negotiators to do the job, big pronouncements about trade deals but not having the leverage to follow through. This is a combination of Quadrant 2 arrogance and Quadrant 4 belligerence and erodes the other two quadrants of Quadrants 1 and 3. Epitomised by Boris Johnson, a mountebank winging it by the seat of his pants. Helen Edwards in Campaign:
“For decades, Britishness has translated as a desirable amalgam of creativity, irreverence and edginess founded on – and made possible by – an underlying steadfastness and solidity. It’s the combination that made “Union Jack” brands attractive” but that Brexit had made Britain “a bit less sexy, a bit less credible, less relevant; sadder, sillier, more entrenched; with codes that could once be deployed with irony but which now come over as marks of sullen, arms-crossed insularity.”
“Britain used to be represented by the image of a rather cocky but classy English gentleman who dresses after the Duke of Windsor. To great embarrassment of his Scottish, Welsh and London family members, he has started to show early signs of dementia – to the extent that he is now blurting out xenophobic nonsense and is packing his suitcase to leave immediately. But to where, exactly, nobody knows.”
- Some Conclusions and Future Avenues
Brexit is proving to be an ideological flashpoint, and Britishness has been thrown up in the air. We have a mass of 35 million people who voted in the Referendum and a population that is talking more about politics than ever before. But a proper debate around Britishness amidst the bluster, naked appeals to patriotism and mutual recrimination is yet to be had. We also, frankly, have a nation at risk of becoming a one party state with a rampant Conservative party. Article 50 is set to be triggered and Treaty this will exclude the UK from a huge, profitable trade bloc. The Union is at risk of dislocation with a Scottish Independence referendum looming and residents of Northern Irish who voted to Remain, being courted by the Republic of Ireland who is a member of the European Union for citizenship. In this interregnum we might succumb to regression whereby Quadrants 2 and 4 press on with a reactionary agenda. But the hope is that, whatever the outcome, Quadrant 3 values can help to forge a new and reborn Britain, more self aware and armed able to have a more candid conversation.
Holt and Cameron in their book Cultural Branding (OUP; 2012) discuss the power of an ‘ideological turning’ point. They write that “ideological opportunities are produced by major historical changes that shake up cultural conventions of the category, what we call a social disruption”. Brexit is certainly potentially one of those. They go on to write: “We focus on those chances to unsettle the category’s ideology, that lead consumers to desire a new ideology or to feel uncomfortable with the existing ideology.”. “cultural innovations are never created from scratch… successful innovations repurpose existing ideologies, myths and cultural codes… to address the ideological opportunity”. In the book Holt and Cameron explain how the Ben & Jerry’s brand exploited an ideological flash point through espousing a progressive ideology that is opposed to Reagonomics and how in contrast Jack Daniels revived frontier masculinity through using reactionary ideology. I certainly think that this country’s branding needs to be sure to temper the Jack Daniel’s with some Ben and Jerry’s…
Following Holt and Cameron’s prescriptions – does the temporarily liquid, fractured nature of British identity as a result of Brexit throw down a challenge to brands? Does it offer us an opportunity for cultural innovation to bridge the cultural chasm? We have already seen many creative responses to Brexit from those who do not feel that the direction taken by the present Government represents them. The New European is a paper founded specifically catering to the 48% for example. And we have brands responding to Brexit in idiosyncratic ways.
But I believe, the big challenge now is to forge a more cohesive national identity that goes beyond the residual transgression and rejectionism of Brexit and that forges a galvanizing British identity. This would ideally vaunt our positives, including the paradoxes but without falling into extreme vainglory or wanton unpredictability that is likely to spook and irritate our European neighbours and European citizens currently resident within the UK. I do not promise to know how to do that and it is certainly too big a task for one man. I do think that semiotics could be a great tool. Some of the analysts have also suggested that the semiotics community might rethink British identity and create some positive future narratives. The fallout from Brexit might lead to some flashpoint of discomfort for British brands trading abroad. But as Katrin Horn has suggested I do think that cultural insight can help find positive spaces for British brands amidst chaos and uncertainty. There may even be ways of exploiting the internal tornness of British identity whilst also mitigating the potential negatives.
So, I’d like to make a call to action.
Brand owners and any stakeholders in British brands, I’d love to hear your opinion on this piece (even if it’s to complain about my snobbery, political bias, prejudices and vilification of class). Semioticians I’d love to hear from you if you’re IN for a collaboration on building some scenarios.
*Semiotics colleagues I worked with (all on Linked In) in Europe to source insight were:
Thierry Mortier, Belgium, Sonia Marques, Portugal, Katrin Horn, Germany, Luca Marchetti, France, Masha Papanthymou, Russia, Karin Sandelin, Sweden, Paulina Goch-Kenawy and Maciej Biedzinski, Poland, Daniela Ghilodi, Italy, Gabriela Pedranti, Spain, Lucia Trezova, Czech Republic.
And thanks to my semiotics collaborators Grant Venner and Josh Glenn for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.